Chapter 12. A Death

{135} THE first stages of repentance are but a fever, which there is restlessness and thirst, hot and cold fits, vague, dreary dreams, long darkness which seems destined never to have a morning, effort without result, and collapse without reaction. These symptoms had already manifested themselves in Agellius; he spoke calmly to Callista, and sustained himself by the claims of the moment; but no sooner had he left the room and was thrown upon himself, than his self-possession left him, and he fell into an agony, or rather anarchy of tumultuous feelings. Then rose up before his mind a hundred evil spectres, not less scaring and more real than the dreams of the delirious. He thought of the singular favour which had been shown him in his reception into the Christian fold, and that at so early a date; of the myriads all around who continued in heathenism as they had been born, and of his utter insensibility to his own privilege. He felt how much would be required of him, and how little hitherto had been forthcoming. He thought of the parable of the barren fig-tree, and the question was whispered in his {136} ear whether it would not be fulfilled in him. He asked himself in what his heart and his conduct differed from the condition of a fairly virtuous heathen. And then he thought of Callista in contrast with himself, as having done more with the mite which she possessed than he had done with many pounds. He felt that Tyre and Sidon were rising up against him in her person; or rather how the saying seemed about to be verified in her, that strangers should sit down in the kingdom from far countries, while those who were the heirs should be thrust out. He had been rebuked by one to whom he rather ought to have brought self-knowledge and compunction, and she was sensitively alive to his want of charity. She had felt bitterly that she was left in ignorance and sin by one who had what she had not. She had accused him of being zealous enough to win her to himself, when he had shown no zeal at all to win her to her Maker. If she was brought to the truth at length, there would be no thanks to him for the happy change; yet on the other hand, though he had predicted it, alas! was it likely that it would be granted? Had she not had her opportunity, which was lost because he had not improved it? Yes, she had with a deliberate mind and in set words put aside and taken leave of that which she once desired and hoped might have been her own, sorrowfully indeed, but peremptorily, as firmly persisting in rejecting it, as she might have persisted in maintaining it; and, if she died in infidelity, horrible thought! would not the burden lie on him, {137} and was this to be the token of the love which he pretended to entertain for her?

What was he living for? what was the work he had set himself to do! Did he live to plant flowers, or to rear fruit, to maintain himself and to make money? Was that a time to pride himself on vineyards and olive-yards, when, like Eliseus, he was one among myriads who were in unbelief? Ah, the difference between a saint and him? Of what good was he on earth; why should not he die? why so chary of his life? why preserve his wretched life at all? Could he not do more by giving it than by keeping it? Might it not have been given him perchance for the very purpose that he might sacrifice it for Him who had given it? He had been timid about making a profession of his faith, which might have led to prison and death; but perhaps the very object of his life in the divine purpose, the very reason of his birth, had been that, as soon as he was grown, he should die for the truth. He might have been cut off by disease; he was not; and why, except that he might merit in his death, and that what, in the ordinary course of things, was a mere suffering, might in his case be an act of service? His death might have been the conversion of thousands, of Callista; and the fewness of his days here would have been his claim to a blessed eternity hereafter.

Nor Callista alone; he had natural friends, with nearer claims upon his charity. Had he been other than he was, he might have prevailed with his uncle; {138} at least he might have taught him to respect the Christian Faith and Name, and restrained him from daring to attempt, for he now saw that it was an attempt, to seduce him into sin. He might have lodged a good seed in his heart, which in the hour of sickness might have germinated. And his brother again had learned to despise him; indeed he had raised in every one who came near him the suspicion that he was not really a Christian, that he was an apostate (he could not help uttering a cry of anguish as he used the word), an apostate from that which was his real life and supreme worship.

Why did he not at once go into the Basilica or the Gymnasium, and proclaim himself a Christian? There were rumours abroad that the new emperor was beginning a new policy towards his religion; let him inaugurate it in Agellius. Might he not thus perchance wash out his sin? He would be led into the amphitheatre, as his betters had been led before him; the crowds would yell, and the lion would be let loose upon him. He would confront the edict, tear it down, be seized by the apparitor, and hurried to the rack or the slow fire. Callista would hear of it, and would learn at length he was not quite the craven and the recreant which she thought him.

Then his thoughts took a turn. Callista! what was Callista to him? Why should he think of her, when she was girding him to martyrdom? Was she to be the motive which was to animate him, and her praise his reward? Alas, alas! could he gain heaven by {139} pleasing a heathen? "But to whom then," he continued, "am I to look up? who is to give me sympathy? who is to encourage, to advise me? O my Father, pity me! a feeble child, a poor, outcast, wandering sheep, away from the fold, torn by the briars and thorns, and no one to bind his wounds and retrace his steps for him. Why am I thus alone in the world? why am I without a pastor and guide? Ah, was not this my fault in remaining in Sicca? I have no tie here; let me go to Carthage, or to Tagaste, or to Madaura, or to Hippo. I am not fit to walk the world by myself; I am too simple, and am no match for its artifices."

Here another thought took possession of him, which had as yet but crossed his mind, and it made him colour up with confusion and terror. "They were laying a plot for me," he said, "my uncle and Aristo; and it is Callista who has defeated it." And as he spoke, he felt how much he owed to her, and how dangerous too it was to think of his debt. Yet it would not be wrong to pray for her; she had marred the device of which she was to have been the agent. "Laqueus contritus est, et nos liberati sumus:" the net was broken and he was delivered. She had refused his devotion, that he might give it to his God; and now he would only think of her, and whisper her name, when he was kneeling before the Blessed Mary, his advocate. O that that second and better Eve, who brought salvation into the world, as our first mother brought death, O that she might {140} bear Callista's name in remembrance, and get it written in the Book of life!

It was high noon; and all this time Agellius was walking in his present excited mood, without covering to his head, under the burning rays of the sun, not knowing which way he went, and retracing his steps, as he wandered about at random, with a vague notion he was going homewards. The few persons whom he met, creeping about under the shadow of the lofty houses, or under the porticoes of the temples, looked at him with wonder, and thought him furious or deranged. The shafts of the sun were not so hot as his own thoughts, or as the blood which shot to and fro so fiercely in his veins; but they were working fearfully on his physical frame, though they could not increase the fever of his mind. He had come to the Forum; the market people were crouching under their booths or the shelter of their baskets. The riffraff of the city, who lived by their wits, or by odd jobs, or on the windfalls of the market; lazy fellows who did nothing, who did not move till hunger urged them, like the brute; half-idiotic chewers of opium, ragged or rather naked children, the butcher boys and scavengers of the temples, lay at their length at the mouth of the caverns formed by the precipitous rock, or under the Arch of Triumph, or amid the columns of the Gymnasium and the Heracleum, or in the doorways of the shops. A scattering of beggars were lying, poor creatures, on their backs in the blazing sun, reckless of the awful maladies, the fits, the {141} seizures, and the sudden death, which might be the consequence.

Numbers out of this mixed multitude were asleep; some were looking with dull listless eyes at the still scene, or at any accidental movements which might vary it. They saw a figure coming nearer and nearer and wildly passing by. Just then Agellius was diverted from his painful meditations by hearing one of these fellows say to another, as he roused from a sort of doze, "That's one of them. We know them all, but very poor pickings can be got out of them; but he has more than most. They're a low set in Sicca." And then the man cried out, "Look sharp, young chap! the Furies are at your heels, and the Fates are going before you. Look there at the emperor; he is looking at you, as grim and sour as you could wish him." He spoke of the equestrian statue of Severus before the Basilica on the right; and, attracted by his words, Agellius went up to a board which was fixed to its base. It was an imperial edict, and it ran as follows:—

"Cneius Trajanus Decius, Augustus; and Quintus Herennius Etruscus Decius, Csar; Emperors, unconquerable and pious; by united council these:—

"Whereas we have experienced the benefits and the gifts of the gods, and do also enjoy the victory which they have given us over our enemies, and moreover salubrity of seasons, and abundance in the fruits of the earth;

"Therefore, acknowledging the aforesaid as our {142} benefactors and the providers of those things which are necessary for the commonwealth, we make this our decree, that every class of the state, freemen and slaves, the army and civilians, offer to the gods expiatory sacrifices, falling down in supplication before them;

"And if any one shall presume to disobey this our divine command, which we unite in promulgating, we order that man to be thrown into chains, and to be subjected to various tortures;

"And should he thereupon be persuaded to reverse his disobedience, he shall receive from us no slight honours;

"But should he hold out in opposition, first he shall have many tortures, and then shall be executed by the sword, or thrown into the deep sea, or given as a prey to birds and dogs;

"And more than all if such a person be a professor of the Christian religion.

"Farewell, and live happy."

The old man in the fable called on Death, and Death made his appearance. We are very far indeed from meaning that Agellius uttered random words, or spoke impatiently, when he just now expressed a wish to have the opportunity of dying for the Faith. Nevertheless, what now met his eyes and was transmitted through them, sentence by sentence, into his mind, was not certainly of a nature to calm the tumult which was busy in breast and brain; a sickness came over him, and he staggered away. The words of the edict {143} still met his eyes, and were of a bright red colour. The sun was right before him, but the letters were in the sun, and the sun in his brain. He reeled and fell heavily on the pavement. No notice was taken of the occurrence by the spectators around him. They lazily or curiously looked on, and waited to see if he would recover.

How long he lay there he could not tell, when he came to himself; if it could really be said to be coming to himself to have the power of motion, and an instinct that he must move, and move in one direction. He managed to rise and lean against the pedestal of the statue, and its shade by this time protected him. Then an intense desire came upon him to get home, and that desire gave him a temporary preternatural strength. It came upon him as a duty to leave Sicca for his cottage, and he set off. He had a confused notion that he must do his duty, and go straight forward, and turn neither to the right, nor the left, and stop nowhere, but move on steadily for his true home. But next an impression came upon him that he was running away from persecution, and that this ought not to be, and that he ought to face the enemy, or at least not to hide from him, but meekly wait for him.

As he went along the narrow streets which led down the hill towards the city gate this thought came so powerfully upon him that at length he sat down on a stone which projected from an open shop, and thought of surrendering himself. He felt the benefit of the {144} rest, and this he fancied to be the calm of conscience consequent upon self-surrender and resignation. It was a fruiterer's stall, and the owner, seeing his exhaustion, offered him some slices of a watermelon for his refreshment. He ate one of them, and then again a vague feeling came on him that he was in danger of idolatry, and must protest against idolatry, and that he ought not to remain in the neighbourhood of temptation. So, throwing down the small coin which was sufficient for payment, he continued his journey. The rest and the refreshment of the fruit, and the continued shade which the narrow street allowed him, allayed the fever, and for the time recruited him, and he moved on languidly. The sun, however, was still high in heaven, and when he got beyond the city beat down upon his head from a cloudless sky. He painfully toiled up the ascent which led to his cottage. He had nearly gained the gate of his homestead; he saw his old household slave, born in his father's house, a Christian like himself, coming to meet him. A dizziness came over him, he lost his senses, and fell down helplessly upon the bank.

Chapter 13

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